It wasn’t too long ago that Beth Harwell was on the wrong side of overwhelming majorities in the state Capitol. She began serving as a state representative back in 1988, at a time when freshman lawmakers were expected to be seen and not heard as fellow Republicans spent the next two decades trying to dismantle the powerful, Democrat-controlled regime.
She had never thought about being House Speaker.
Now, the roles are reversed and Harwell is the most powerful woman in the state. In her second term as Speaker, she commands a 70-member army of Republicans in the seat of government where the stakes for her party are higher, her candor is more measured and the spotlight on her every move beams brighter.
While she is known to tread carefully, she’s not immune to political failure. She lost one of her top lieutenants in a fiery reelection bout with the National Rifle Association. And just this week, ready to cast the tie-breaking vote to usher in referendums on selling wine in grocery stores, she watched with grim emotion as her hand-picked chairman unexpectedly killed her favored bill.
The City Paper sat down with Harwell to talk about about how she manages her dynamic supermajority, how far she’ll stick her neck out for controversial legislation targeting Metro Nashville and how much further her aspirations reach beyond the gavel.
Last week, you stepped in on the vote for wine in grocery stores when it was in a subcommittee. What thresholds have to be met for you to interject yourself in legislation like that?
Well, it is a prerogative of the speaker of the House to vote in any committee. I try not to use that often, because I really believe in the committee system and the structure of the committee system, and I put members on committees for a specific reason, if I think they have knowledge in that area. This particular bill I knew was going to be a tie, and I believe that it was an issue that has been in the General Assembly long enough for it to deserve the full consideration of the full committee, and so that’s the reason I did it.
And this isn’t the first time you’ve stepped in on a vote.
I did it one other time; I believe for collective bargaining.
So going forward in your tenure, what have to be those benchmarks that it’s important for you to go and be that deciding vote?
Usually, I do it in a subcommittee system, a subcommittee situation, where it is a tie vote. I’m not going to go in unless I think that my vote would make a difference for the bill, having the opportunity for further discussion and debate. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve said to my members, “You have to be for this,” I just believe it deserves additional discussion and debate — again, the wine in grocery store issue has been with us a long time now; it’s time to come to some resolution, and I believe that by voting, it brought the issue to the table where there will be some compromise offered by a number of folks. [Editor’s note: The bill died in the House finance committee on Tuesday].
Can you lay out this charter authorizer legislation? You’ve been in talks with Metro or with Metro Nashville Public Schools — where do you feel like it is heading and why is it so important to have an authorizer when we only had one high-profile instance of the system having a glitch?
Actually, we had two: KIPP was denied, as well, to expand, and it’s been a very successful public charter school here, and Great Hearts has actually proven very successful in the state of Arizona in actually increasing children’s [scores] — of the top five performing schools on SATs — they take the SAT; we take the ACT here — the top five performing schools on SATs in Arizona, four of them are run by Great Hearts. One of the things we know is our most critical factor that Mayor [Karl] Dean has pointed out over and over again is we have got to raise our children’s ACT scores. We keep talking about we want more kids to go to college, we want more kids to graduate, that’s important for the reputation of our city and our state, and I [don’t know a] better way to do that than get schools in here that actually are geared toward helping children improve their ACT scores.
It has never been my goal to have a lot of public charter schools. What I want are the very best public charter schools that are in existence, and my personal philosophy is that … public charter schools will be the redeeming factor for our public school system. I believe in public education, but we have to give parents choice and opportunities in that public school setting, and right now, we’re not doing that enough.
You know, we have a few magnet schools — they screen children, they have a high wait list to get in, and I just heard from a number of my constituents and from the mayor of this city, who is 100 percent determined and committed to improving our education system, that this was something that was needed.
It’s a best practice; the states that have the best public charter school system have a statewide authorizer in place. I would predict that we would not use that statewide authorizer very often. I think it just makes the locals understand that we’re watching the decisions you make — it can’t be made for political reasons, it has to be made in the best interest of the child, and so that’s why I think it’s important.
So, if it’s not going to be used all that often, why have an entirely separate body? Why not just give those powers to the State Board of Education to just have stronger teeth to enforce that, “Yes, we’re going to reverse this decision?”
We could do it that way, and I’m not necessarily opposed to that, but a separate authorizer would be composed of professionals — and politics does not come into the decision at all, because they’re not political entities — so I’m open to either way, but it’s just when we look at the best practices that exist in other states, this is the model that is used and has proven successful.
There’s talk — at least from Republicans — about vouchers. Do you think there’s a point on vouchers where if we move forward on that, we’d be sacrificing the public school system for this voucher program?
I think that’s a valid concern. I think it’s a legitimate concern. It is not my intent at all. I want to do everything I can to beef up and make our public education system the best, particularly for my home city, Nashville. I’m tired of people moving into Williamson County and Rutherford County as soon as their kids get ready to go into fifth grade, which is, in essence, what’s happening right now, and we want to make sure that we keep those children in our public education system.
So vouchers would not be my priority. However, our governor has pushed a program which I think is limited in nature so that it’s kind of a test run to see if this really does help out a significant number of children. I guess when it gets right down to it, if you looked at the state budget and you saw how much money we spend at the state level for education, the taxpayers of this state should demand nothing less than the best education system that we can provide, and really, the children deserve nothing less than the best education system we can provide, and if vouchers are one small part of that, then I’m open to that discussion.
But you’ve never been a voucher fan. How necessary is a voucher program when we’re going to be having more charters in the system?
Well, I hope the outcome is great public charter schools that meet the needs of at-risk children, that meet the needs of exceptional children in whatever area. And again, this is the governor’s proposal, and I’m supportive of the governor’s proposals. I think it may be helpful to a small number of children. You know, just because a school is private doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better school than a public school, and I’m perfectly aware of that — what we do know about private schools is that they have a much higher rate of graduation. It’s rare that a child entered into a private school does not complete all the way through the high school diploma, and so one of the things, of course, this governor’s concerned about is our low graduation rate. So if a limited voucher program for those children that are most at risk — failing children, failing schools — gives a few children an additional opportunity to succeed, the governor wants to be supportive of that.
There’s been a lot of educational reform legislation come through the legislature in the last few years. At what point do you and the leadership look at measuring current efforts versus enacting new sorts of pieces? Like for instance, if a voucher program goes in, how long do you measure that before you expect to see some sort of success or failure before you modify it?
I think that is a concern as well. We have put a lot of reform in place in a short period of time, and I want to do everything I can to hold what reforms we’ve put in place accountable. What we’re finding is with the evaluation process, at first, it was like: “Oh, no, we’re going to be evaluating teachers.” Well, really, the teachers have come to find out, “Hey, this is good for me; it’s letting me succeed, it’s letting me show where I need to improve.”
And the same with any reforms that we put in place now; we’ll have a continual check. I think the department of the commissioner is completely behind, “Let’s keep evaluating.” Are these reforms that we put in place getting us where we need to be? I think that’s why the governor is committed to doing a very limited voucher program, because we want to make sure in fact it is successful before we expand it, and that’s why he’s pushing for a limited program as opposed to some that are pushing for a more expanded program: so that we can keep tabs on it, make sure that we’re keeping up with it. It may not give us the results that we’re expecting, and if it doesn’t, we can certainly end it if it’s a much more scaled-back program as opposed to a more expansive program.
We’ve heard a lot about, over the last couple years as more Republicans have been elected, “Let’s talk about local power, local decisions,” but then we have also seen a handful of proposals where the state dictates to locals: the idea of the statewide charter authorizer, the Vanderbilt “all-comers” bill last year, and now the newest state bill that would kind of, at least here in Davidson County, would kind of break up the consolidated government here. How do Republicans push those while still saying power should be local?
And it is always a balancing act, but when the state government puts the enormous amount of money that we put into education, we should have some demands in place: both accountability demands and demands for reform. So we want the local input, they have a right to, but when you look at the huge amount of money we send these locals for education, I think the state has a right to be involved in the educational issue.
We’re not talking about unfunded mandates, which we sometimes see coming down from the federal level; this is completely different. We fund education in this state at the state level, and I think we have a right to have input in that education. That’s not excluding the fact that we know locals are always more tuned and closer to the people; we do believe in that concept, so I see more of a partnership on that area. I mean, you referred to the Vanderbilt policy, and let me just say, I don’t agree with Vanderbilt’s internal policy, I don’t, but I do believe that it is a private institution and they have a right to set their own policy. You can choose not to go there and not participate in that school.
And there’s the extension of that bill saying to colleges that if you don’t have a certain policy, then we’re going to pull out your police powers.
Well, that’s to private universities, right, and I’m not supportive of the measure to — I mean, it’s obviously geared toward Vanderbilt and I’m not supportive of that — but I am supportive of the measure that Rep. [Mark] Pody has that says, look, we’re not going to have this all-comers policy in our public institutions. I think that’s a legitimate role for us to play.
And the legislation — I think it affects three counties, but it would include Davidson — that would allow some of these satellite cities to break off or offer their own services, what do you think about that idea?
Well, I’m meeting with our mayor a little bit later on, on that piece of legislation. I have had previous conversations with the mayors — keep in mind, those cities are in my legislative district, so I’m very aware of their concerns, and I want to keep an open mind and hear both sides.
I mean, not that you need — you probably know — but the brief history of it: When we became a metro government, those satellite cities were allowed to continue the services that were providing at the time, and so you have a place like Belle Meade that’s providing both — it has its own court system, has its police, has garbage pickup — it has those services, then you have Oak Hill that’s saying, “Well, let’s level the playing field; if you’re allowed to provide those services, let Oak Hill provide those services, at least give us equalization of services provided.”
And of course, the mayor of Nashville takes a different viewpoint of that; he doesn’t want their services as expanded. So it’s a tough dilemma, and I’m open to being understanding of both sides, and we’ve enjoyed metropolitan government; I think it’s been good for the county. I also understand the needs of these local governments to meet their constituents’ needs. I mean, that’s close to the people, right? And if people are saying then, we want this service provided by Oak Hill or Forest Hills, I want to understand that and hear that. So I really haven’t come down on that on a side yet.
Have many of the mayors of the satellite cities in your district brought this to you and said, “Could you support this?”
They have talked to me about it, and as speaker, I don’t carry legislation.
We’re expecting a decision from the governor soon on whether to expand Medicaid. Any feelings about which direction that’s headed?
Well, I think it’s a real dilemma, because our governor is extremely thoughtful and bright, and so he is just trying to get accurate information from the federal government so that he can make the best decision for our state. I honestly don’t think he’s made up his mind yet. I think he really is still weighing the pros and cons of this, because there are. I mean, anyone that says this is an easy answer hasn’t walked all the way through it. I think our legislature’s a little gun-shy, for lack of a better word.
I mean, we’ve been through TennCare, we’ve put people on a program and then had to take them back off again, and no one can look you in the eye and say: “Oh, when this money runs out or goes away in three years, we’re going to be able to fund it.” We’re not going to be able to fund it. So it’s a matter of do we take that quick fix now, with the clear understanding three years from now, we’re going to phase everybody back off, or not? And that’s a tough call, and I know where the hospitals are coming from, I know they want that money, I know they’re facing tough financial times, but it’s a difficult decision.
If the governor decides, yes, we should do this for at least the next three years, how do you sell that to your members?
I think it will be difficult. I think it’s going to be an educational process. That’s one of the reasons why I actually have pushed Chairman [Steve] McManus to open the committee up to hearing both sides of this argument, but I think the educational process begins this week. I mean, it’s been going on; my members have been studying this, but we’re going to start having formal testimony, and we have Dr. [C. Wright] Pinson from Vanderbilt University telling us why we should do it, and we have some of our activists to tell why we shouldn’t, and so we’re going to start that debate process. So this will be, like a lot of things down here, an educational process.
Do you think your members could be convinced?
I don’t know that all of them will get there, but some of them, yes.
And in thinking about both the chambers of the House and Senate, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey seems to have this ability to be able to speak his mind freely, which he does fairly often, and you are a lot more calculated in your responses. Can you talk about why?
I think that’s a fair assessment. You know, I’m honored to be speaker, and I take it — I’m very aware of my responsibilities to my membership — and I want to always have a policy that my door’s open, and I’m trying to understand and weigh out both sides of an issue.
Things are not black and white. I mean, I really want to weigh out and find the best policy for Tennessee. And so if I err on the side of caution, it’s because I’m trying to weigh everything out before I make a final statement. I think I’ve made it clear where I am on a lot of different issues, but I try to be thoughtful in the process.
And obviously, that has ramifications outside of just interactions with the media about issues of the day. You have a lot more members to juggle than there are in the Senate.
How does that affect your leadership style?
Well, of course, I have more members, and so the House just runs and functions differently than the Senate, but again, I think that’s what the founding fathers intended. Keep in mind, the House is always closer to the people because we’re up for re-election every two years, and actually, every year-and-a-half you’re starting that campaign process. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing; I think it really does keep the House members close to the people, and so the dynamic’s different, and our districts are smaller, so — and I mean I think the Senate does a good job, but [there is] a high level of accountability on the House side. So I try to reflect that; I try to be as understanding to the diversity. I mean, one of the great things about being speaker is getting to go into each one of these members’ districts on a pretty regular basis, and you understand them better when you go into their districts and see what’s important to the folks back home.
Do you wish you could express what you think about legislation more often?
You know, ultimately, at the end of the day, I always make my opinion known; I probably do it at a slower pace because I just feel like I owe my membership the time for them to have a thorough vetting in the committee structure, and that takes some time.
Along those lines, you led an effort to put in a limit on the amount of bills that can be introduced. Where did the idea for that come from?
Actually, it’s something that I’ve wanted to do as a member of the General Assembly for a while, and now that you’re speaker, you get to try those things.
You know, there was a little kicking and screaming at first because that was a culture change in the General Assembly, but if the Republican Party is the party of less government, bills become laws and laws turn into big government, and so what my goal was as speaker is to say: Look, we believe in less government, let’s prove it. Let’s go home and really think about what’s your priority for this upcoming legislative session, and let’s limit your priority, and so come focused on this is really what’s important to my constituency or to me as a legislator; here’s where I’m going to put my focus; I’m going to be ready to go Day 1 because these are the most important things to me.
And now that we’ve gotten kind of used to it, members have gotten used to it, they’re OK with it. I think there is a level of comfort here.
Where did the resistance come from this time around?
There were a few members that were just used to, because of their position or the area of the state, to be asked to carry a lot of legislation.
But what I found is that it has really evened the workflow and the workload of the members, and so now you even have freshmen who were, back in the old days when I was a freshman, you know, you were just to sit there and be quiet and not say anything; you didn’t really get engaged until you were in Year 6, 7 or 8. Our freshmen are hitting the ground running, and they’ve all — I, quite frankly, think they’ve all proven themselves, that they’re very capable of doing this, and they’re carrying legislation, so I think that’s a good thing.
And what it’s done for some of my more senior members, more seasoned members, they’re actually signing on to some of this legislation and helping these freshmen get it through, so overall, I think it’s caused us to collaborate more; you see a lot less duplication. I’ve had members drop bills — they say, “Wait a minute, I’m not going to sponsor this if you’re going to” — and back in the old days, everybody would put their bill in; we would have six or seven bills doing the exact same thing. That’s going to come to an end, and I think it’s going to get better even next legislation session, which is actually their first time out, so there’s little adjustments to be made.
Some of the committees, we’ve noticed, are going through bills, some of them faster than maybe what we went through last year, like the guns-in-parking-lots legislation moved fairly quickly through committee, and so has the charter school authorizer, and there was very limited debate on that in the House education committee. Overall, what do you think — is that a good thing?
Well, you know, I always want my members to be deliberative, and the point is not what date we get out, the point is running an efficient, effective legislature. That’s what’s most important to me, and no one thought that it was effective or efficient when we were going into the end of June or the first of July — that just wasn’t right, and there is no ideal, perfect day in which we adjourn, but what I’ve asked my members to do is, the days of rolling and rolling [bills] are over.
You come prepared to get started Day 1, January, and let’s get going. So in the House — specifically in the House — every piece of legislation goes through a subcommittee, a full committee, and you mentioned state authorization — that goes through sub-education, full education, it’s going to be government operations this week, it’s going to be in sub-finance next week, full finance the next week, calendar rules the next week, before it ever gets to the floor.
That’s a long process, so there is plenty of time for members to come and express: “Hey, Beth, I’ve got a problem with this.” If you know the Public Authorization Bill is not the same as it was when it was originally introduced, it’s gone through some changes, and it will continue to evolve by the time it finally gets up there on the House floor for a vote.
So, you know, I’m a firm believer in the committee system, and I think we are allowing debate. If at any point, my members or my chairman come to me and say, “We need more time,” I’m going to grant them more time. The important thing is to thoroughly discuss these. The guns-in-parking-lots bill, we certainly understand that that bill is one that’s been with us a long time; it was last year and the next year, and Lt. Gov. Ramsey and I realized that if we’re going to pass something, we already know what we’re willing to do; let’s sit down and get that done, so that we’re not talking about that all session long; that was not healthy.
After the very heated election, we saw Rep. Debra Maggart lose in a primary for opposing it last year — what kind of message do you think it sends that you guys passed something fairly quickly as soon as you guys got back?
Well, I think it says really two things: that we are a Republican caucus that firmly believes in Second Amendment rights; I also think it says that the lieutenant governor and myself are reasonable in that approach. So this is different from the bill that was held back last year, in that the lieutenant governor said: OK, it’s gun carrying permit only; the other bill was for everyone. The difference also is we didn’t have proper liability protection last legislative session; this time, we did. So we didn’t pass the exact same bill of last year; we made two very significant changes in that piece of legislation, which I think made it more palatable to both the gun rights owners and the business community.
But do you think it says something politically that Republicans can be pushed into looking at legislation more quickly or with more of a sense of urgency after what happened to Rep. Maggart? I mean, there were some members who said that upset them, and they didn’t want to work with the NRA, and other people were saying, “Let’s get something done right away.”
Well, it upset me; I mean, Debra Maggart was one of my members, and I take care of my members, and I’m sorry that that all came out as it did. Again, we didn’t push through a piece of legislation that wasn’t thoroughly understood and compromise was reached, and had the folks back then been willing to put in liability and gun carrying permits only, I think it would have passed last session, but they weren’t willing to do that. So everyone came to the table a little bit this time; no one got exactly everything they want, but that’s the legislative process.
So you’re not afraid that it’ll show that the leadership is more cognizant of the folks who are behind the scenes at elections?
I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so. I think, if anything, it was the opposite, because the lieutenant governor drafted this piece of legislation on his own, and you didn’t see the NRA down here lobbying for the bill, and I think that was a clear message that, you know, we respect the National Rifle Association, they have every right to be involved in the political process, and we welcome that, and again, I have a very pro-Second Amendment caucus, no doubt about it, but we also respect the right tactics and the right way to handle yourself.
Let me shift just a little bit. From when you beat Jan Bushing in 1988 …
A long time ago.
… You mentioned that freshmen are a little more engaged now. How has the House changed since you’ve been in it?
Well, obviously, the Republican Party is now in control. You know, when I was first elected, I was the only Republican elected in Davidson County ever in city government or state government, and not only was I a Republican, but I was a Republican from Middle Tennessee, so I didn’t even have the clout an East Tennessee Republican would have, so I was really low on the totem pole, and things have changed.
I mean, the growth of our party here in Middle Tennessee has been unbelievable. So that’s definitely a change of the Republicans. You know, I think there have been some procedural changes — you mentioned one, the 15-bill limit, adjournment in a timely fashion.
I think we have prioritized being known as very pro-business legislature, and I didn’t know that back then as a freshman, I would ever see myself as speaker of the House — then, I was just like: “That’s never going to happen” — and here it has. So has this body changed? Yes, it has; it’s changed significantly in political power, the party base. We have more women in the legislature now, we have a very pro-business legislature now, and I think with that comes — and I’ve said this many times, I mean, it’s great to be the political party in power — but with that comes a tremendous, awesome responsibility to prove that we’re really capable of the leadership we’ve asked this state to give us. So the pressure’s on for us to do a good job and prove to people: “Yeah, you’ve made the right decision; we’ll handle and run state government in a good fashion,” and I think up to this point, we’ve proven that we are capable.
You know, there’ll be stepbacks every now and then, but overall, we have a high rating with the public overall, much higher than a lot of other states. I think this state is on the right path. We’re a low-debt state, we’re a low-tax state, we’ve passed some good legislation, we’ve got a governor that’s sincere, working well with the legislature.
So I think we’ve got a lot of good things going for us, and if nothing else, we’re functional. You know, compared to what you see in Washington, D.C. I mean, I’ve made it clear to my membership that when I became speaker, I’m the speaker of the entire body, Democrats and Republicans, East Tennessee, West Tennessee. I mean, everybody’s going to have a fair share, and I think if you talk to some Democrats, they’ll say: “She’s fair; we don’t always get what we want, we’re the minority party, but she’s fair.” And that’s the way I want to go down.
Along those lines, it’s interesting to hear members from both bodies talk. You hear people talk about “Speaker Ramsey” and “Speaker Beth.” Can you talk a little bit about the difference in tone between those two? You could say it’s a familiarity or a matter of personality; you could also say that the female speaker is not getting the same amount of respect that her male counterpart is.
Well, you know, I don’t think it’s an element of respect. I mean, obviously, I wouldn’t be in this position if my members didn’t have enough faith in me to let me be here. It doesn’t go unnoticed historically being the first female, and I’m proud of that, but I quickly always add it’s my male colleagues that made this possible for me to be speaker.
So I think I have had a good working relationship with a lot of these members for a long time, and I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s healthy when you’ve got a body as large and diverse as the state House is, that you have that good working relationship with these members. I want all of my members to feel free to come into my office any time, and I’ll try to work with them and help them with whatever their issue is; whether it’s some constituent work or some piece of legislation, and it is a friendship, but I think there’s an element of respect. I certainly respect them. I respect the whole system down here. I respect my chairman and my committees, and that’s a huge part of what goes on down here, and you know Lt. Gov. Ramsey and I have different styles, that’s true, no doubt about it, but I think we also work well together.
I believe you taught a state and local government class at Belmont before being elected.
What’s the biggest difference you’ve found between the theoretical aspects of it and the practical side of it?
Well, you know, I’m fond of saying: Do you remember that little page in the textbooks, how a bill becomes a law; it was a diagram, you know? And that page has actually just jumped out of the textbook and come alive, because when you actually see the process, you realize how much it depends on personal relationships that you develop and the rapport that you have with your fellow members, to be successful in a legislative body.
That’s why some people can’t do it. I mean, there’s some people, they’re going to be an executive, and then there are others that are very good with working with the legislative body; it’s a skill set. So I’ve seen that process come alive, and again, I’m quick to add, I’m very impressed with the integrity and the quality of the people I serve with. I mean, we have our bumps along the way, but at the end of the day, we really always come together to do the best thing for the state of Tennessee, and that’s remarkable, it really is.
We again are not just stagnated in partisan bickering like Washington is, so they just can’t get anything done. We can still function and work as a legislative body, and I think that’s a credit to perhaps my leadership style, but certainly to my members.
You mentioned a minute ago that when you were a freshman legislator, you weren’t thinking about becoming speaker. To what extent do you ever think about going up the line to being governor some day?
Well, you know, I love what I’m doing. I really believe in state government. I believe that if we’re going to move our nation forward, the solution to most of our problems belongs at the state level. I really believe that. So to continue in state government service, I’d be honored to [do] that. I also enjoy working in a legislative body, so if there was an opportunity to work in another legislative body — I want to continue to be involved; I enjoy what I do, and so, in politics, it’s a lot of timing and luck, so we’ll see where it takes us. I just don’t know.